The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #117: One by Metallica (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #117: One by Metallica.

I am not a heavy metal fan per se but, as I have stated in these posts before, sometimes, that driving energy is exactly what the doctor ordered and I like it a lot. This sentiment is very true of today’s song, “One” by Metallica. I think that the musical construction of this song is amazing, the musicianship being displayed by the quartet of James Hetfield, Kurt Hammett, Robert Trujillo and Lars Ulrich is top-notch and, most importantly for me, the concept or idea that this song is built around makes for excellent storytelling. “One” won the Grammy Award for being the Best Metal Song the year it was released. As well, the official video for “One” has been downloaded/streamed over 100 million times and is generally regarded as one of the finest heavy metal videos ever made. So, let’s take a few moments and do a deep dive into one of my favourite songs of all-time, “One” by Metallica. Here goes.

The concept for the song, “One” comes from a movie about WWI called, “Johnny Got His Gun”. The story revolves around the idea of experiencing a “lottery odds” event in your life. Many people claim that there is such a thing as “true love” which means that there is someone in the world who is the “one” for you and you are the “one” for them. The flipside of that experience is having something horrendous and unimaginable happen to you. That is the case in “Johnny Got His Gun”. In that story, a young soldier finds himself trapped in No Man’s Land and is hit by a mortar round. As a result of that blast, the soldier loses part of his jaw and is unable to speak. He is blinded, as well. Finally, his limbs are destroyed, too. Against all odds, he comes to in a hospital bed; eyes bandaged, immobile but, very much still alive. What unfolds then is how this soldier comes to grips with the reality of his situation. His immediate problem is being unable to communicate with the doctors and nurses in the hospital. He quickly realizes that he has, for all intent and purposes, become buried alive within his own body. At that point, he cannot see a future for himself and the rest of the story revolves around how he seeks to let someone, anyone know that he remains a sentient being but that he cannot face the prospect of going on living as he is and will always be forever more.

As odd as this will be to hear, “One” by Metallica is constructed on a foundation of classical piano. The song is played by guitar and drums but, the pounding beats change in tone and in intensity, much the same way operatic classical scores do. It will not be surprising then, that one of the things that has lifted “One” out of merely being a metal song, is how adaptable it is to being paired with classical artists. One of the videos I will show you involves Metallica playing “One” with classical pianist, Lang Lang, in which Metallica swap out some of their guitar parts in excahnge for Lang Lang’s piano notes. I will, also, share a video that is strictly a piano cover to show you how the entire song is based upon classical piano scores. But, for now, the original version of “One” is constructed with layers of guitars, weaving in and out of each other. The purpose of their notes is to, at first, create the sound of a war zone, with machine gun fire being created by the staccato notes of guitarist Kurt Hammett. The guitars and drums create a frantic mood, while James Hetfield’s lyric’s give voice to the frightened thoughts of the soldier trapped helplessly within his own mind and body. It is a story of life against all odds and of the search for release through death; all expertly told through song and sound.

The song, “One” lasts for over seven minutes and is told in three parts. It is fairly easy to note the transition periods in “One” and, as such, to know where you are in this soldier’s story: the stating of his condition, the realization of what that means for him going forward and finally, the search for help to end his suffering. As rock songs go, “One” is fairly operatic in scope and tells a story unlike any other song I know.

So, let’s get down to it. I will start with the official video that combines live action playing by Metallica with scenes from a black and white movie based on the movie, “Johnny Got His Gun”. Then, I will play the live concert version that the band plays with Lang Lang in China. From this video, you will be able to start to see how this metal song has classical music roots. Finally, I will play a full piano cover of “One”. Look past the beautiful, leggy blonde who is at the piano and watch her as she does a fabulous job replicating the entire song on piano. From her rendition, it is easy to see the entire classical base that “One” was constructed upon.

Overall, “One” is my pick for the best metal song of all time. I love the story idea and the wonderful playing by the boys in the band. So, without further delay, here is “One” by Metallica. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “One” by Metallica, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “One” by Metallica and Lang Lang, can be found here.

The link to the video for the instrumental piano version of “One”, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Metallica, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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